Tenants Push Need For More, Safer Low-Income Housing
BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK (WSKG) — There’s a national eviction moratorium that lasts through the end of the year, but renters face mounting pressure now.
Advocates protesting outside the Broome County Department of Social Services (DSS) Wednesday said the housing crisis pre-dates the pandemic. At the end of the year, matters will only get worse.
They demanded a rent freeze and an end to all evictions. Only those people who meet certain criteria and make a formal declaration to their landlords are eligible for protection under the national eviction moratorium.
Many in the county now look to DSS for assistance, but the need has long gone unmet. At the speak-out, organized by Binghamton Tenants United, several speakers shared their experiences with Broome County’s public and rent-assisted housing. The consensus: it’s not always safe, nor does DSS have the capacity to meet the need.
Jackie Wood has lived in Binghamton her whole life and has spent time on and off the streets.
“When I was waiting for the months of getting approval for DSS, I had to live in a tent during the winter,” Wood said.
For Broome County’s extremely low-income residents, it can take many months to find stable housing. The county faces a deficit of more than 7,000 available and affordable low-income rental units, according to 2019 data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC).
The county currently has 18 affordable and vacant rental units per 100 extremely low-income households. That makes it the lowest in the state; tied with Tompkins County.
Rebecca Rathmell has worked with people experiencing homelessness and housing instability in the Southern Tier for 15 years. She said recent “affordable” housing properties developed by the city don’t meet the needs of extremely low-income renters.
NLIHC defines those extremely low-income renter households as those at or below 30 percent of the area median income. Developments like the new Canal Plaza on the Northside are designated for people between 50 and 60 percent of the area median income.
“We’re not saying that we don’t have housing in general,” Rathmell said. “What we’re saying is that for those who are most vulnerable and already have an insufficient supply of income to meet their needs and the needs of their families for those individuals.”
Several speakers at the rally pushed for more extremely low-income housing, as well as a better quality housing.
Amber Johnson, an organizer with Citizen Action, said families who rely on DSS assistance only have so many options, and many of the landlords with DSS contracts manage properties in disrepair.
“Those properties, to be honest, should really be condemned, but people have to live there because it’s the only place that they’re able to afford,” she said.
In a prepared statement, Department of Social Services Commissioner Nancy Williams said safe housing is a priority for Broome County Executive Jason Garnar and the agency.
“DSS works with clients regularly who struggle to find quality housing they can afford – it is very hard to find,” Williams wrote. “County Executive Garnar launched the Safe Housing Task Force last year to focus on this issue. DSS has participated in that initiative to come up with solutions for a variety of the housing concerns we hear from residents – and protestors.”
The Safe Housing Task Force began work in 2018 on policy recommendations for local elected officials. Rathmell served as the committee’s co-chair. She said it was a collaborative effort between the county and several municipalities, but after a year of meeting and drafting goals, she wasn’t even able to get on the agenda for a meeting of the county legislature.
On the municipal level, Binghamton began accepting applications for rent assistance on Aug. 31, after receiving federal relief funding through the CARES Act. The city earmarked nearly $500,000 for homelessness prevention through direct rent and utility assistance for extremely low-income families. Another $250,000 will go toward assistance for low- and middle-income households.
Johnson said the city’s program leaves gaps in the extent to which people who need assistance most are helped.